Painting of Native Americans offends residents
Durham, N.H. — For decades, a colorful mural of New Hampshire’s earliest settlers hauling logs, frolicking through the snow and walking through town has greeted visitors at a post office in the state.
But one image on the 16-panel artwork of a Native American posing menacingly with a settler’s house in the distance — and the words “Cruel Adversity” below it — has sparked controversy in Durham, a mostly white and affluent town that is home to the University of New Hampshire. There are no other images of Native Americans on the mural.
The town said the Native American panel is based on a 1694 massacre in which about 250 Wabanaki warriors attacked a settlement in what is now Durham and killed or imprisoned 100 settlers. But some residents have complained it’s offensive, and the New Hampshire Commission on Native American Affairs has written to the U.S. Postal Service asking that it be removed or covered up.
“We are concerned that the mural entitled “Cruel Adversity” inaccurately portrays the local indigenous people, and the history, of the town of Durham,” said Kathleen Blake, the commission’s vice chair. “If one learned more about the history from this time period, one would understand that the portrayal of the Native people as “cruel adversity” perpetuates an idea of history only from the European prospective.”
The debate over the panel goes back decades and echoes fights across the country to replace sports mascots that some Native Americans consider offensive and remove names of historical figures from public buildings whose policies were seen as discriminatory against them.
The Durham debate has intensified during the past year and taken on added urgency in recent weeks in light of unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia. A white nationalist rally over a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville last month turned violent and left a counterprotester dead.
Kitty Marple, chairwoman of the Durham Town Council and Durham Human Rights Commission, said people over the years wrote letters or came into town hall to complain that the Native American panel was “really inappropriate.”
The mural was donated to the post office in 1959 by the Women’s Club of Durham. But it wasn’t until a year ago that Town Administrator Todd Selig took a closer look at the issue after learning the Native American commission had come out against it and called for it either to be removed or covered.
Marple proposed the town pay for removing the entire mural while Selig called for the creation of additional artwork to be installed at the post office “that would provide a more complete perspective on the intersection between colonists and indigenous people in this area.”
But when Selig contacted the postal service, an employee there told him the postal service no longer accepts artwork in its buildings and has a policy of prohibiting art from being altered or removed. A spokesman for the postal service, Steve Doherty, referred to a postal service regulation that concluded artwork in its lobbies “forms a vital part of America’s national heritage and every effort is made by the Postal Service to preserve and safeguard this collection for future generations.”
Rather than remove image, the postal service has drafted several paragraphs of text that could be added to the mural, including details on Native American history in Durham and wording that “these were difficult and cruel times, with atrocities committed by all sides.”
Selig said the town is willing to accept the text as a reasonable compromise but is waiting for the postal service and the commission to come to an agreement on it. The commission has not decided whether to endorse the text.
For now, the mural remains in place at the Durham post office, hanging above the lobby. Bryce Hartman, a UNH sophomore from Saranac Lake, New York, said the image captures “the struggle that both sides had with whose right it was to the land that was here.” Another UNH student, Zach Borim, of Dartmouth, Massachusetts, called for it to be taken down.
“It’s not something that should be around anymore,” Borim said. “It’s kind of an antiquated bigotry that really should be gone by the wayside.”